Samhain, Mystery, Imagination

I’m a big fan of the early 80’s punk/post punk/hardcore scene.  The Misfits were always one of my favorite punk bands.  Samhain, the band that Glenn Danzig formed between The Misfits and Danzig (Which I also like), is a really interesting band.  They are neither quite punk, nor metal.  The playing is much more primitive than what would come, but is more experimental and strange than the horror punk of The Misfits.  It has a gothic ambience to it, despite the underlying aggression which has always been a part of Danzig’s sound.

I have been listening to the first Samhain album Initium.  I love it, especially the closing track Archangel.  I think what is interesting about it, even if you aren’t into this band or even particular style of music, is how well it has aged, especially the fact that the recording is very lo-fi and primitive even for its time.  In fact I would argue that the lack of fidelity ads to this records appeal.  It creates a sense of mystery, like you are hearing something that you weren’t supposed to.  It allows the imagination to fill in the missing gaps.  Nothing is more important to a piece of work than the imagination of the listener, viewer, observer, or whatever, depending on the form of art that is being taken in.  When you read a book the imagination is creating the images, which are just words on a page, and that is very powerful.  One of the reason old recordings form the 50’s and 60’s have stayed relevant, and not just because they feature great musicianship and performance, is because the technology of the time made a certain amount of mystery inherent in the work.  When you listen to a Phil Spector produced record, there are so many instruments being recorded, that it is hard to tell exactly what is in the room.  So you have the musicians and what they are performing, but then you have an added element of mystery, of there being something other present, when those recordings play.  Whether the mystery inherent in the above Samhain recording was intentional or the result of having no budget, I would bet on a little of both, it has that unexplainable quality to it, where it is a puzzle that can never be completely deciphered.  The fact that Glenn Danzig was trying to create a horror vibe in his music is enhanced by this mysteriousness.  Think about when you watch a horror movie; Often you are more creeped out before you see the monster, when you are still imagining how horrible it could be.  Sometimes modern horror movies will use grainy footage of something to add to their terror.  I think this is for the same purpose.  As all things more and more towards high definition and sonic clarity, realize that perfection of image and sound can also cause something to be lost along the way.  The best filmmakers, musicians, artists, will find ways to adapt, to use new technology to get the same emotional quality as the old, but I think realizing that mystery is an important quality in art is an important step.

The History and Mysterious Beauty of Blue Moon

The Elvis Presley versions of Blue Moon is such a fantastic recording.  It is a whole universe in less than two and a half minutes.  I found a site where you can read the history of Blue Moon. (Though the first two paragraphs should be skipped.)  A sample:

“On August 19 they spent hours doing take after take of ‘Blue Moon,’ in an eerie, clippity-clop version that resembled a cross between Slim Whitman’s ‘Indian Love Call’ and some of the falsetto flights of the r&b ‘bird’ groups (the Orioles, the Ravens, the Larks). After it was all over, Sam wasn’t satisfied that they had anything worth releasing, but he never uttered a word of demurral for fear of discouraging the unfettered freshness and enthusiasm of the singer.”

Take 4 that evening, the one that RCA would eventually release two years later, reveals Elvis’s unusual interpretation of the song. Music historian Colin Escott describes it thus: “Elvis skips the bridge and the final verse that contains the happy ending, neatly transforming the 32-bar pop classic into an eerie 16-bar blues.” Hart’s original lyrics describe a man whose longing for love is finally rewarded. Elvis used only the following two opening stanzas, repeating and separating them with falsetto moans (that’s how I categorize the sound now):

One thing that really strikes me about the recording is how primitive it is.  Yet this does nothing to detract from its enjoyability, and in fact this actually helps to create the timeless mysterious quality of the recording.  Mood and emotion always win out in music.  What is good music if not sounds that create emotion?  In modern recordings you can make everything clear, but that is not necessarily an advantage.  When there is a bit of murkiness or misdirection, it allows the imagination of the listener to fill in the missing qualities.  Even knowing the history of Blue Moon, how it was recorded, cannot detract from the recordings strange beauty.  I think one of the reasons that something like Blue Moon is with us, aside from the fantastic performances, songwriting, and place in history, is that no matter how much we know about it, it remains a mysterious puzzle that will never be solved.  We might know the pieces that were in place on August 19th, 1954, but there is a strange alchemy, another presence, participating in the events of that night.

True Detective Season 2 Trailer

The trailer of Season 2 of True Detective is above.  Although I was slightly let down by the very ending of Season 1, I really liked the show overall.  Having been a longtime Twin Peaks fan, I liked that True Detective had some of that shows regional strangeness combined with an extremely horrifying murder mystery.  Mix in other elements from noir and Southern grotesque and the show at its own thing going.  Plus, the performances were excellent.  Hopefully Season 2 will do the same.

Add On:  I must also admit I have always liked Colin Farrell.  He always knows how to chew up scenery when needed.  

Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys

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I had one of those days where nothing seemed to go right.  I went to walk my dog around the lake and locked my keys in the car and so on.  I decided that it was best if I didn’t leave my house the rest of the day.  I figured if I went out I would end up driving my car into a bridge embankment like an unguided missile.  So tonight I’m staying in and watching the movie 12 Monkeys for the first time in years.  Although I have caught parts of it on TV, I haven’t watched it from start to finish since it was in the movies in 1995 when I was still in high school.  I’ve always been a big Terry Gilliam film, but I remembered this movie as more of a thriller than it being one of his signature pieces.  I thought it was the kind of movie that was totally entertaining, but once you knew the solution to its mysteries, that it didn’t have the multiple watch value of some of his other films.

My memory, as usual, was wrong.  The movie is another one of his sic-fi movies, as is The Zero Theorem that I just reviewed.  And although at the foreground of this movie is a highly entertaining mystery thriller, in the background is many of the themes that Gilliam delves into in other works.  In a world that is absurd, who is really crazy, and who is really insane?    Are those that believe put their faith in the order of the world, an order that was constructed by man, any more sane than those that question things?  The normal world, or sane one, is one that tortures animals, heavily medicates people that are outside of that norm, and that plays games with nature.

Gilliam, as usual, does an excellent job at creating an imagined future.  He does this by creating a future that looks lived in.  Even though this movie came out in 1995, his vision of the future doesn’t seem dated.  It is a future created by someone with a boundless imagination and true artistic ability.  It has an element of steampunk in its look.

However, most of the film takes place in 1990 and 1996.  He takes what was then roughly the present and disorients the viewer to it by using the weird angles and wide angle lenses that give the his films a distinctive look.  This not only helps to mirror the insanity of its characters, but also allows the viewer to view the everyday with a fresh perspective.  It is like we are seeing things that we see every day for the first time. Another way that he exposes the absurdity of our world is by combining things that exist in reality in unique ways.  Pink flamingos fly through a northeastern city.  In a hallway in the mental hospital early in the film a janitor stands on stilts.  All of these things exist in our world, but the way they are combined makes you realize the strangeness that is lurking just below the surface of our world.

Although I felt The Zero Theorem had more to say, and was therefor for me a better film, this movie is actually more accessible.  The narrative takes less work for the viewer.  Both are brilliant films, but in different ways.  The Zero Theorem and his movie Brazil are more heady and full of ideas, but 12 Monkeys has a more compelling narrative.  It really depends on what kind of scene you want to get into.  For the first time Gilliam viewer or the more casual movie fan I would probably recommend something like 12 Monkeys.  If someone was looking for a stranger and more intellectual, if you enjoy surrealism and philosophical underpinnings, then I would probably steer someone to Brazil or The Zero Theorem.  

The Mystery of Twin Peaks

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One of the most wonderful universes that you can get lost in is Twin Peaks.  It takes you into the mystery of the world.  It’s strange, but not any stranger than real life.  It’s just that the strangeness of real life is heightened so that it is brought to the forefront.  One of the things that David Lynch does so well is to create strong emotions.  He knows that emotions are abstract, you can’t explain sadness or pain or happiness so much as you can feel it.  Through abstract visuals and sound design he creates cinema of intense feeling.  

The trick to what he does is that he often allows you to feel two different emotions at the same time. The end of Fire Walk With Me, the movie that takes place in the Twin Peaks universe, is one of the most horrifying sequences I have ever seen in film.  It is also beautiful.  The fact that it is beautiful doesn’t make it any less horrific to watch.  In fact in might make it more so, because it opens you up emotionally to it in a way that no straight horror movie or documentary ever could.  David Lynch isn’t afraid to make you feel uncomfortable, but you never ever get the sense he is trying to shock you just for the sake of it.  

The TV show Twin Peaks is a combination of different genres.  There are characters that could have come out of a film noir and there are characters that could have come out of a soap opera.  These more traditional genre elements are laced with episodes of the surreal and uncanny.  At the core of Twin Peaks is a murder mystery.  However, the TV show especially also features many moments of light comedy.  It is again the fact that it is combining different elements that make it so unique.  

But I think one thing that truly makes Twin Peaks special is that in watching it, we not only recognize feelings and emotions from reality, but the show somehow heightens the viewers reality as well.  When we enter the woods after seeing the show we may notice how dark and mysterious they are in ways we might not have payed attention to.  Entering a diner we may notice details and the behavior of people in ways in which we didn’t before.  Twin Peaks is great entertainment, but it is also something more.  It is a fictional world that makes us aware of the mysteries in our own.  

Under the Skin: A Second Look

Although I can say with all certainty that the new movie Under the Skin is not for everyone, I can’t stop thinking about it.  If you want to know what it is about read my review from a few days ago.  It is cinema at its best, where imagery is painterly and infused with multiple layers of meeting.  One can’t help but look at the world in a new light, at least if you are open to this kind of film.  It is a slow movie, but this pace is rewarding as it causes you to contemplate the images being shown. 

Scarlett Johansson is an alien, but as this character she forces us to see the world in a way that we might not otherwise.  The world, stripped of its context and meaning that we impart on it, is a strange and mysterious place. 

One of the interesting things in the movie is the men that she seduces.  They have thick Scottish accents.  The accents are so thick that at times I had trouble discerning what they were saying.  Here they were speaking the same language as me, but they appeared foreign, as if inhabiting some familiar but parallel universe. 
Also, the natural world is presented as I believe it really is, as a world we rarely seen in nature documentaries that want to explain and categorize it.  Nature is beautiful and enchanting, but it is also dangerous beyond human comprehension on many levels.

Again, this movie is not for everyone.  It requires work out of the viewer.  In some ways it is more like going to an art museum than the traditional Hollywood fair.  However, if you are up to the challenge, you will see something unique.  It is if the director, Jonathan Glazer, opened up a small glimpse to the mysterious heart of the universe.